What does it mean to live a healthy lifestyle? It may sound like a silly question but different people may have their own idea of what it means be healthy. As you read this article, you may be surprised to learn that it’s something more than the traditional definition of fitness.
My approach toward healthy living have vacillated over the years between being somewhat hyperfocused on physically fitness and convincing myself that eating a few donuts a week would not do me any harm. The periods of hyperfocused, physical fitness involved three-mile jogs that I did once a week (and not quite hyperfocused in the fitness-world-sense since I did this only once a week). Jogging eventually was replaced by cycling eight or more miles, two to three times a week. During this period, I certainly made a consistent effort to eat healthier, including eating fresh vegetables daily and reducing my consumption of soda to once a month. During the periods of my life when I was less physically fit, I viewed donuts as a dietary necessity. Why donuts? If you consider that Dunkin Donuts has offered, for quite some time, a free donut when you buy a medium or large coffee, after completing an online survey about your visit (to obtain the “validation code” for the free donut), I’d figured, “Why pass up this great opportunity.”
I continue to drink coffee from time to time. But it has been a while since my donut days, as I have learned to embrace healthy snacking. It is these experiences, among others, that led me to the question I present at the start of this article. My question also has to do with one’s definition of fitness. If I’m thinking about my definition of fitness, my question would be, “Do you believe you are taking care of yourself physically and mentally?”
Physical and Psychological Wellbeing
One of the things I find interesting is how a person chooses to live a healthy lifestyle. As I’ve thought about my approach to a healthy living, I’ve come to realize and appreciate that to live healthy is to engage in health behaviors that promote physical and psychological well being. I’ve also come to realize and appreciate that it is never too late to start engaging (or reengaging, in my case) in health-promoting behaviors. Of course, the proverbial “easier said than done” may be the immediate thought for many hearing the “it’s never too late…” speech. Many people may even give a roll of the eye or a noticeably fake smile at the speech accompanied by a vibe in any commentary they give afterwards that suggest they have better things to worry about. Or, they may simply say in a polite manner that it is no one’s business to inquire about their approach to living healthy. I wouldn’t blame them. There are indeed many other things in our day-to-day life that competes for our time and attention. And the thought of doing a particular activity in the name of being healthy may not always be a priority. This was certainly my initial attitude many years ago.
Many Years Ago…
I did reasonably well with intramural sports in high school and decided to try out for one of the competitive teams. I chose track, as there was something about running that appealed to me. In case you are already asking if I became the high school track star, I did not. Why? I dropped out on the first day. I barely completed a trial run that was well under two miles only because I was in desperate need of oxygen halfway through. Yes. Competitive sports was not my forte in high school. And I was convinced that without having competitive sports as a high school accomplishment, developing athletic prowess would never come to past.
By the time I entered college (in the late nineteen eighties), I did not bother to pursue competitive sports, as it was no longer an interest. I gave myself, however, plenty of exercise walking between Gothic-style buildings and contemporary-looking structures to get from one class to the next or to attend a college event. In the fall of nineteen ninety, I felt I would benefit from increasing my level of physical activity by adding a physical fitness class to my list of registered courses. The class I selected from the several available to students was scheduled to meet three times (i.e., Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays) a week at 9:00 a.m.
I was aware that the physical fitness class would require students to engage in some type of workout program. I figured this class would be a breeze until the instructor mentioned that as one of his weekly requirements, the third class would involve all students running around the reservoir across the street from campus. The distance for completing the run was 2.2 miles. I suspect that to the seasoned runner or jogger or anyone engaged in competitive sports, this distant is an easy walk (or run) in the park. For someone like me, who was anticipating a fun and easy course that would complete a college core requirement, 2.2 miles was met with some dread after recalling the track team tryout in high school when I was in desperate need of an oxygen tank before completing the run.
The first immediate thought for some of the other students was to drop the class. To my surprise, no such thought came to my mind. Despite my perception of the 2.2 miles being a daunting requisite, there was something inspiring about the instructor’s enthusiasm for physical fitness and his belief that all of the students would develop the endurance and confidence to complete the reservoir run by the end of the semester. For me, his encouraging words made this class requirement more of a welcomed challenge than something to fear. Coupled with his inspiring words was his effort to help me and the other students recognize how our existing abilities would help us to improve our physical fitness. He noted that anyone desiring to be physically fit comes to the table with one or more strengths to build upon. He also guaranteed that everyone in class would be able to complete the run with greater ease by the end of the semester compared to when she or he started the class. He noted that it would be a physical and mental training that each person would accomplish at her or his own pace. And he underscored that it would be an accomplishment that would boost our self-image and sense of self-achievement.
The instructor was right about each of us having a strength each brought to the class. His pep talk helped me recognize that distance running was not the impossible feat I once believed. In searching for my existing strengths, I realized the countless times I spent during the previous semester running to a city bus stop that was a quarter of a mile from my house to catch the 8:15 am bus to get to college for a 9:00 a.m. class because I left the house 8:05 a.m. instead of 7:45 a.m. In essence, I realized that I began my training as a runner without realizing it. With each passing week, running 2.2 miles on the third day of class became easier. I would find myself making less stops to rest and eventually running non-stop. By the end of the semester, what came across as a daunting task was an exhilarating recognition of my ability to run with great ease. And the enjoyment I found in running inspired me to participate in the Turkey Trot, an annual race around the reservoir that was organized by the college athletic department and held the week before Thanksgiving. I did not win for my designated age group but found that my ability to participate in a race to be just as exhilarating. This would become an accomplishment that would stay with me in the years that followed my graduation from college. What came of this experience? I took to jogging as a pastime. This pastime eventually evolved into an interest in recreational cycling, as lower back pain required me to find an alternative to jogging.
There are many people who, like me, began engaging in health promoting behaviors in their early adult life, if not earlier. And there are those individuals who never bothered to consider health promoting practice or always told themselves, “maybe next year,” and found themselves saying the same thing when next year arrived. For some of these folks, the idea of engaging in health promoting behaviors is something they begin to embrace later in their adult life. Perhaps maturity and life experience helped them recognize the value of developing health promoting practices. Yet, for other people, making the effort to adopt a healthy lifestyle may continue to be met with trepidation or regarded as a non priority in their later adult life.
This brings me back to my question at the beginning of this article: What does it mean to live a healthy lifestyle? There are likely numerous responses a person could give. A response I would like to give is it that living a healthy lifestyle is not restricted to an age group and not about starting out at a young age.
If you are already engaged in a healthy lifestyle, great! If not, there is no reason why you could not start today. And getting started is not a difficult task. It is not about suddenly hitting the gym every day although, for many folks, this is how they may choose to initiate their transition to healthy living. It is not about starting a rigorous exercise program at home or trendsetting diet calendar after watching an infomercial although there is nothing wrong with either of these as long as they are done in a manner that truly promotes your health. It is about the desire and commitment to adopt health behaviors that you will come to appreciate and, once started, will likely never want to stop. It is also about learning to increase a health-promoting attitude and decreasing health-damaging ones. And here’s the surprising thing to know about getting started for anyone desiring this goal. You are likely already practicing health-promoting behaviors.
Taking a Strength-based Approach
I have learned that your attitude about health and well-being is central to starting and maintaining health-promoting behaviors. A healthy start to developing this attitude is to be strength-based. That is, think about how you go about your day and see if you can identify health-behaviors that you already engage in. Here are some examples that people may not initially recognize as health-promoting:
- Are you good at maintaining a routine schedule? Some people are good about getting up early in the morning to start their day. They may even have established a morning routine that works well for them. If there’s a way you can create a schedule for yourself that will permit inclusion of a health-promoting activity, you are off on a very good start.
- Do you already receive eight hours of sleep nightly? If yes, continue to do this on a consistent basis. And no harm if you happen stay out late with friends from time to time.
- Are you grateful for the things you have or good experiences that have come your way? Consider yourself to be fortunate if this is a routine practice. There is research that suggest that gratitude is a key component to happiness. Yes, having gratitude is health-promoting. If you desire to develop or reinforce this practice, click here for an easy and inexpensive way to begin.
- Do you intentionally park your car at a distance from the entrance of your work? Or, do you use the stairs and intentionally avoid using the elevator as a way of fitting some physical activity in your day? If so, awesome! (If not, I would give one of these, if not both, a try. In half a year’s time, you will come to greatly appreciate doing either of these two activities. Trust me on this!)
As you can see, there are various simple activities that exemplify a health-promoting lifestyle, are easy to initiate, and are relatively easy to augment with other health promoting activities. Given my work and family schedule, going to the gym would certainly not be convenient. But I am motivated to do at least one exercise activity a day that’s convenient and health promoting. Thus far, I have done well at avoiding the elevator in the building where I work (unless I have several packages) and make an effort to walk as much as possible. And I added a new activity earlier this year that was easily incorporated into my schedule. It is called the “plank challenge.” So far I’m enjoying it very much. It offers a brief and fun way for anyone to strengthen his or her core muscles, improve balance and posture, and test his or her limits, among other benefits. It’s known formally as a “plank exercise” and it is easy to find many how-to instructions and accompanying images on the web. The routine is short, simple and said to yield significant gains physically and mentally. If you are interested in giving the plank exercise a try, here is a website that includes the video that I found helpful: http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2014/12/05/5-plank-benefits.aspx. You may find this to be a useful exercise routine to include in their day-to-day schedule.
The key is to learn to recognize your existing strengths-based behaviors and build upon them by doing them more often and by augmenting these practices by adding other health-promoting activities.
So hit the ground running with a health-promoting activity and enjoy.